The Engels Angle: Scorers must vault Habs to the next level
Published Friday, July 22, 2011 11:07AM EDT
MONTREAL - It's commonly acknowledged that Carey Price is the difference between success and failure for the Montreal Canadiens, but what would make the difference between the lower tier and upper tier of the playoff picture should Price do his part?
Some may point to the composition of the blueline as the solution. The losses of Wisniewski and Hamrlik are tough to absorb, but there are few that would argue the Canadiens defence corps is weaker with the addition of a healthy Andrei Markov and a healthy Josh Gorges. P.K. Subban has a year of experience under his belt and his rapid evolution supports the extremely high expectations most hold for him. Emelin, Diaz and Weber inject more speed and youth into Montreal's defensive structure and Hal Gill will anchor all that enthusiasm with the steadiness he has exhibited post-lockout.
The strength of the blue line on a defensively-structured team like the one Martin likes to run is obviously paramount to the team's standing. But they've had solid defense and great goaltending since they were put together in the summer of 2009.
Others may say that the Habs are one or two bruising forwards away from contending for one of those top spots but given their style of play, can this really make the difference between a bottom playoff spot and home-ice advantage?
There's no question that the deficiency of brutes in the Canadiens arsenal has made for a tougher navigation of the Eastern Conference standings, but it's another deficiency that has kept them from the top tier of the conference.
The primary scorers of the team haven't found consistency and while Plekanec and Gionta could be considered the two of six players to meet expectations, they haven't necessarily exceeded them.
As of mid-December of last season, Plekanec was on pace for another career-year. He was working his way towards 75 points and authoritatively stamping that seal of authenticity on his just-signed, six-year, 30-million dollar contract. Instead, he scored just 30 of his 57 points over the last 47 games of his season, which was well off the pace he had established in notching 27 points in his first 30 games.
Increasing his production from first to second half is exactly what you expect to see out of Plekanec now that he's earning big bucks and playing in the prime of his career. Many have argued that his role as the team's best defensive forward has detracted from his offensive output and though that may be accurate, he was signed to such a lucrative extension to overcome that.
The Canadiens expect to see the guy who blazed the league in the first half of the 2009-10 season by scoring 44 points in his first 41 games. They expect to see that guy throughout the second half of the season as well.
As for Brian Gionta, he has certainly done his part. After scoring 28 goals and 18 assists in 61 games of his first season with the Habs, he put up 29 goals and 17 assists in 82 games last season. That can't be seen as an improvement but if he hadn't spent more than half his season next to a beyond-struggling Scott Gomez he could've exceeded expectations.
Beyond Plekanec and Gionta, it hasn't been all bad with Gomez. Last season was an abysmal failure for him, but after a slow start to the 09-10 season, he led the team in scoring with 41 points over the final 43 games. It's not impossible for him to get back to where he was and if he gets close to that kind of production, he makes the Canadiens a much better team.
Mike Cammalleri came to the Canadiens after a 39-goal season with the Calgary Flames. He had previously authored a 34-goal season with the LA Kings in 2007. His 45 goals in 132 games with the Canadiens are off the mark that had him sign a 5-year, 30-million dollar contract with the club. If he can stay healthy and produce to his capacity, that will go a long way towards helping his team secure home-ice advantage.
Add in Erik Cole and Max Pacioretty and the Canadiens have a balance to their top-six they haven't had in a very long time. Twenty goals is a minimum bar for both Pacioretty and Cole to achieve. You can throw Kostitsyn into that mix as well, because it's expected he can score as much.
If Plekanec, Cammalleri, Gomez, Gionta, Kostitsyn, Cole and Pacioretty play at or near their potential, this team will have improved enough for people to consider them among the best in the Eastern Conference.